first people to inhabit Rhode Island arrived over
8,000 years ago. These people, called the Paleo-Indians,
settled in Rhode Island after migrating across the
land bridge between Asia and North America. The
Paleo-Indians were nomadic hunter-gatherers who
lived in an extremely harsh post-Ice Age environment.
After a few thousand years, the climate of Rhode
Island warmed, allowing for native populations to
increase in number. During the thousands of years
before the arrival of Europeans, the Native Americans
progressed through many different stages, including
the Archaic and Woodland eras. These different eras,
separated by time, technological, and cultural achievements,
witnessed the change from a nomadic hunter-gatherer
lifestyle to a village-based agricultural existence
very rich in culture. The Native Americans that
greeted the first European explorers were descendents
of these cultures.
early English settlers quickly found that the land
they wanted for settlement was already inhabited
by a number of Native American tribes. The Narragansetts,
Wampanoags, Nipmucks, and the Niantics all occupied
different areas of the land that became Rhode Island.
The Naragansetts, part of the Algonquin language
family, were the region's dominant tribe. They populated
the area along the Narragansett Bay between Warwick
and Exeter. The Wampanoags, enemies of the Narragansetts,
lived on the eastern shore of the Narragansett Bay.
Other tribes of Rhode Island such as the Niantics
and the Nipmucks were much smaller in number. The
Niantics lived in the present-day Charlestown and
Westerly areas, and the Nipmucks inhabited the northwestern
part of the state. These tribes sustained themselves
through a combination of hunting, fishing, and farming.
Living with their families in villages, they maintained
a simple and sustainable lifestyle for thousands
of years before the arrival of Europeans.
the time of European settlement, the combined population
of the Narragansett and Niantics was estimated to
be around 7,000.(1)
Encroachment, disease, and warfare due to European
settlement caused the population of Rhode Island's
native population to drop to approximately 200 by
The Explorers of Rhode Island
different people have claimed European discovery
of Rhode Island. Some believe that Irish sailors
landed in New England during Medieval times, while
others believe that the Vikings were the first to
sail the waters off the Rhode Island coast. Based
on controversial carvings found on the Dighton Rock
near the Taunton River, some have speculated that
the Portuguese explorer Miguel Corte-Real was the
first to reach New England. Despite these claims,
the first undisputedly documented explorer to reach
Rhode Island was Giovanni Verranzzano. In 1524,
under the direction of the French King Francis,
Verranzzano made the voyage to the New World in
search of the Northwest Passage, which many at the
time believed was a channel that led to the Far
East. Such a passageway did not exist, but Verranzzano
continued his journey northward along the Atlantic
coast, landing first in Cape Fear, North Carolina,
in search of the fictional route. He sailed to what
is now Block Island and named it Luisa. He also
described it as about the "bigness of the Isle of
Rhodes." Needless to say, that is where Rhode Island
eventually got its name. Verranzzano continued sailing
up the coast and landed in what is now Newport Harbor.
Here, he met with the Wampanoag Indians, who were
friendly to his crew. He left the area in May of
1524, continuing his quest to find an easy pass
to the east.
Northwest Passage was not found near Rhode Island,
and ninety years passed before the next European
would explore the area. In 1614, the Virginia settler,
John Smith, charted the New England coast. He sailed
past Luisa Island and renamed it after himself.
The next to sail Rhode Island's waters were the
Dutch who settled in present-day New York. The Dutchman,
Adrien Block, was sent up the coast in search of
a good trading ground. He came upon Luisa, also
named Smith's Isle, and named it after himself.
This time the name stuck. Although the Dutch and
English explored the area in 1614, settlement would
not ensue for another twenty years.
English from the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth
colonies took frequent forays into present-day Rhode
Island for trading purposes during the 1620s, but
it wasn't until 1635 that the first white person
settled there. William Blackstone, an Anglican clergyman,
built a home near present-day Lonsdale near a river
that was later named for him. Blackstone was Rhode
Island's first settler, but the first settlement
did not develop around him, rather further south,
at Providence. Roger Williams and his followers,
who were seen as religious extremists to the Puritans
of Massachusetts, settled Providence. They left
the Massachusetts Bay Colony to find religious freedom
in the wilderness of Rhode Island. Securing land
grants from the Narragansetts, which were easily
facilitated by Williams' friendship with the tribe,
these settlers went on to found the towns of Providence,
Newport, Portsmouth, and Warwick.
|I have acknowledged
amongst them a heart sensible of kindnesse,
and have reaped kindnesse again from many…
- Roger Williams on the
disputes were common during this time; conflicts
between Indian land grants and royal charters made
acquiring land difficult. To secure their land and
religious freedom, Rhode Island sent Roger Williams
to England in 1643 for a parliamentary patent that
united the four original towns into one colony and
protected their freedom of worship. Twenty years
later, Rhode Island acquired a royal charter from
Charles II, who was more than happy to secure Rhode
Island's freedom of worship, especially if it angered
the Puritans. His hatred towards the Puritans stemmed
from the English Civil War, which brought Protestant
control to England and led to the execution of his
father, Charles I. Once Rhode Island's charter was
secured, Quakers and other religious dissenters
soon made the colony their home.
religious dissenters were welcome, the towns of
Rhode Island grew slowly. It was a rough and uncomfortable
frontier of which many were afraid. Trade with the
Indians carried on at Smith Castle near Wickford,
and wampum was used as currency until 1662.(3)
Some settlers desired a higher level of civilization.
Others were afraid for their lives due to an unsecured
relationship with the Indians; some tribes were
friendly towards the settlers while others were
not. Indians weren't the only threat to the colonists;
during the 1660s, the legislature granted bounties
for the killing of wolves and large cats. "It is
further ordered, that Newport shall pay four pounds
for the killing of a wolf, and Portsmouth twenty
Island's settlements took a big hit during King
Philip's War (1675-1676). This war, between the
New England Native Americans and the settlers, was
brought on by ongoing cultural tensions, disagreement
over land claims, and a series of hostile incidents.
During this conflict, thousands of Indians and over
600 colonists were killed. Rhode Island attempted
to remain neutral during this war, but it was impossible.
Some viewed the conflict as a means for the Puritan
colonies to gain control of land in Rhode Island,
and refused to fight; others joined the troops.
The settlements on Rhode Island's mainland were
destroyed during the war, ruining the colonists'
accomplishments and forcing them to start over.
Island did recover, and by the mid-18th century,
had become a leader in maritime trade. Agriculture
had developed as well; livestock, flax, apples,
and onions were all grown in Rhode Island. Agriculture
was lucrative, but Rhode Island's economy during
this era was dominated by endeavors less morally
sound, including pirating and the slave trade. Privateering,
a legal form of pirating that went on during wartime,
brought Rhode Island a great deal of money during
King George's War (1745-1748) and the French and
Indian War (1754-1763). However, the slave trade
is what would bring Rhode Island more money than
any other economic venture of the time. Molasses
from the West Indies was shipped to Rhode Island,
which was transformed into rum at the distilleries.
This rum was used to barter for slaves on the west
coast of Africa, who were brought to the West Indies
to work on sugar plantations, or to the east coast
to work as domestic servants. The sugar trade, slave
trade, and fisheries were the three largest industries
in Rhode Island during the 18th century.
flourishing economy resulted in large population
increases. The population grew from 3,500 in 1690,
to 50,000 in 1765. The slave population grew from
426 in 1708, to 5,000 in 1765.(5)
Also, the number of merchant vessels rose from 24
to more than 500 between 1708 and 1763. Rhode Island's
dependency on sugar and maritime trade created a
strong backlash against the Sugar Act and other
taxes inflicted on the colonies during the 1760s.
This retaliation culminated into the American Revolution.
(1) "Rhode Island
William McLoughlin. Rhode Island: A Bicentennial
History, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.,
(4) Records of
the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations
in New England, Vol. 1, 1636-1663, (New York: AMS
Press, 1968), 85.
© 2006 Rickie Lazzerini,
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University of California, Santa Barbara
of Historical Reviews
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